Anna Kingsford

Anna Kingsford

Whatever may be the ultimate verdict on the life and writings of Anna Bonus Kingsford, there can be no doubt that she was in her time a distinguished and memorable figure; for which reason the re-issue of her writings* has considerable interest for readers of the HUMANE REVIEW. We must premise that in a brief article we can speak only of the work done by her as a humanitarian and food-reformer; we cannot attempt to discuss the abstruse question of the “New Gospel of Interpretation,” of which she claimed to be the inspired prophetess and exponent. This limitation is perhaps scarcely fair to her, for no character can be adequately judged unless viewed as a whole; but on the other hand it would be a still greater injustice to the cause of humanitarianism were it to be associated with mystic doctrines and revelations with which, as an ethical principle, based on the simplest natural instinct, it has no essential connection. It is of Anna Kingsford, the humanitarian, the anti-vivisectionist, the vegetarian, that we would particularly speak.

For the strange and fascinating story of her life, so short in actual compass, yet so full of eventful incident and poignant experience—her lonely, imaginative girlhood, her early marriage with one who proved himself a most unselfish husband, her illness and enforced severance from domestic ties, her life-comradeship with her spiritual and literary partner, her long term of studentship and brief career as teacher—for all this we must refer the reader to Mr. Maitland’s well-known work.* It is sufficient here to note that through all the maze of her subtle and complex personality, which was a puzzle even to herself, one thread at least runs clear and unmistakable—her strong and unswerving devotion to the cause of the lower animals.

Her mission, to quote her own words, was one “of redemption first and foremost to the animals.” As a girl she had been passionately fond of hunting, and had delighted thoughtlessly not only in the excitement of the gallop, but in the savage frenzy of the “death.” Then one day came sudden reflection and remorse; and thereafter her life was a continuous protest against the cruelties inflicted by man on his lower brethren. This was the chief reason for her devoting herself to the study of medicine. “I do not love men and women,” she said. “It is not for them that I am taking up medicine and science, not to cure their ailments; but for the animals, and for knowledge generally. I want to rescue the animals from cruelty and injustice, which are for me the worst, if not the only sins. And I can’t love both the animals and those who systematically ill-treat them.” We ought not, perhaps, to lay too much stress on utterances of this kind, for Mrs. Kingsford at one period did good work for the claims of women, which were admirably summed up by her in the phrase, “Equal rights and equal experiences.” Nevertheless the words above quoted are significant, and may help to explain certain actions which it is otherwise difficult to understand.

How terrible a sacrifice was involved in her attendance at the medical schools of Paris, the very hot-bed of vivisection, only those who read these volumes can realise. It was, as she calls it, a veritable “descent into hell.” Here is the story of her first shuddering experience, and of the vow that resulted therefrom:

Very shortly after my entry as a student at the Paris Faculty, and when as yet I was new to the horrors of the vivisectional method, I was one morning, while studying alone in the Natural History Museum, suddenly disturbed by a frightful burst of screams, of a character more distressing than words can convey, proceeding from some chamber on another side of the building. I called the porter in charge of the museum, and asked him what it meant. He replied with a grin, “It is only the dogs being vivisected in M. Béclaid’s laboratory.” Much as I had heard and said, and even written, before that day about vivisection, I found myself then for the first time in its actual presence, and there swept over me a wave of such extreme mental anguish that my heart stood still under it. . . . And then and there, burying my face in my hands, with tears of agony I prayed for strength and courage to labour effectually for the abolition of so vile a wrong, and to do at least what one heart and one voice might to root this curse of torture from the land.

That this vow was faithfully kept is proved by passage after passage in the biography.

But it was not only vivisection that excited Anna Kingsford’s detestation. Possessing, as was said of her, “a man’s brain with a woman’s intuition,” she could not limit her sympathies to the victims of one class of torture; she could not condemn the laboratory, without also condemning the slaughter-house. “Under her brother’s tuition,” says Mr. Maitland, “she had adopted the pythagorean regimen of abstinence from flesh-food, with such manifold advantage to herself, physically and mentally, as to lead her to see in it the only effectual means to the world’s redemption, whether as regarded men themselves, or the animals. Man, carnivorous, and sustaining himself by slaughter and torture, was not, for her, man at all, in any true sense of the term. Neither intellectually or physically could he be at his best while thus nourished.” This was the moral of her famous thesis, entitled, “L’Alimentation Végétale de l’Homme,” by which, after much resistance on the part of the vivisectionists, she at length obtained her diploma. In its later form, as the “The Perfect Way in Diet,” it is familiar to all vegetarians.

That vegetarianism was the central principle of Mrs. Kingsford’s creed may be seen from the following passage in one of her public addresses:

I always speak with the greatest delight and satisfaction in the presence of my friends and members of the Vegetarian Society. With them I am quite at my ease. I have no reservation, I have no dissatisfaction. This is not the case when I speak for my friends the Anti-Vivisectionists, the Anti-Vaccinationists, the Spiritualists, or the advocates of freedom for women. . . . The vegetarian movement is the bottom and basis of all other movements towards Purity, Freedom, Justice, and Happiness.

This preference, however, did not blind her to the claims of other humane movements. We find her, for example, making strong protest, at different times, against the barbarous exhibition of bull-fights, the wanton shooting of sea birds, etc.; and her last letter to the press, dated September 14, 1887, was on the subject of “Fur and Feathers.” From first to last, through all her own ordeal of pain and illness and misunderstanding, she fought the battle of the persecuted animals with a humanity and a courage which entitle her to abiding honour and gratitude.

It is not surprising that the principles of vegetarianism were rapidly advanced through her advocacy. Her book was largely read, and her lectures everywhere successful, her championship of a just cause being enhanced by her brilliant personality, her beauty, her versatile mind, and the mysterious interest that hung round her reputation as an adept. This is Mr. Maitland’s account of her personal appearance at the time of the first meeting:

Tall, slender, and graceful in form, fair and exquisite in complexion bright and sunny in expression, the hair long and golden, of the “Mary Magdalen” hue, but the brows and lashes dark, and the eyes deep-set and hazel, and by turns dreamy and penetrating; the mouth rich, full, and exquisitely formed; the brow broad, prominent, and sharply cut; the nose delicate, slightly curved, and just sufficiently prominent to give character to the face; and the dress somewhat fantastic, as became her looks—Anna Kingsford seemed at first more fairy than human, and more child than woman.

But the very fact that humanitarianism owes much to her advocacy makes it the more necessary that, together with a grateful recognition of such services, we should frankly disavow whatever we regard as mistaken and harmful in her teaching. We trust there are few humanitarians who will not agree with us in expressing absolute dissent from her principles and practice in regard to what is euphemistically termed by her “white magic”—namely, her concentration of a murderous will-power upon certain prominent vivisectors, with a view to their destruction.*** Nothing in Mr. Maitland’s book is so strange or so painful as his account of her attempted mental assassination of Claude Bernard, Paul Bert, and Pasteur; attempts which he asserts to have been successful in the first two instances, though this of course will not be credited by the majority of readers. At any rate, the principle, as enunciated by her, is clear enough, and ought to be strongly repudiated by all who profess the creed of humaneness. For though some of us may feel that it is impossible to pass a sweeping censure on every form of tyrannicide, inasmuch as under certain intolerable conditions of servitude resistance may be a lesser evil than submission, still, we cannot but think that, in the case in question, no true justification could be discovered on grounds of either morality or expedience. To argue, as Mrs. Kingsford did, that “it was no human life that was involved in the matter, for that only is a human life which is a humane life,” is a most arbitrary and shocking assertion, opening a door to every kind of violent deed and cruel reprisal; for what right have we, mortals ourselves, and by no means exempt, even the humanest of us, from inherited savagery, to pronounce a vivisector, even the worst of vivisectors, outside the category of human? Surely the Love which is the guiding-star of the humanitarian faith should save us from passing so dreadful and unwarrantable a sentence on a fellow-being.

How are we to account for this strange reversion to deadly and violent methods, in one whose whole life was otherwise a plea for gentleness and pity? We do not know; but it may be that the explanation lies in that lack of sympathy with humankind of which Anna Kingsford was conscious. That there was love in her heart for all her fellow-beings, whether men or animals, who shall doubt? Yet the impression left by her biography, as well as by the statements of some who knew her, is that her personality was shrouded in an element of haughty reserve and isolation. Nor does one gather from her story that she had grasped the vital idea which the more advanced humanitarian thinkers are now beginning to grasp—that the emancipation of animals can only be brought about through, and together with, the emancipation of men that in democracy (we use the word in the widest sense, not as a party shibboleth) is to be found the only solution of the humanitarian problem. Here, we think, is the defect in Anna Kingsford’s brilliant and versatile genius. She was proud, imperious, dogmatic, a benevolent spiritual autocrat who would bring a “revelation” of truth to men, and “redemption” to animals; whereas in fact the reconciliation of man and Nature can only work itself out by the slow pacific process of gradual enlightenment from within, the growing sense of perfect equality and brotherhood. However strongly we may denounce the cruelties of any tyrannical practice, such as the evil work of the vivisector, we cannot, without injury to ourselves and our own cause, abjure our kinship with the wrong-doers. The heaven which is ultimately closed against any sentient being is not a heaven, but a hell.

Of the literary value of Mrs. Kingsford’s writings—her “scriptures,” hymns, poems, essays, and dream-stories—we can say but a brief word. That there is a very rare and delicate beauty, both in her poetical imaginings, and in the style of her language, must be evident to all readers; some of her best pieces have the charm which belongs alone to what is absolutely original and spontaneous. The claim, however, which Mr. Maitland puts forward that the hymns have a transcendent power and sublimity, which ranks them with, or above, the great literature of the world, seems to us to be quite extravagant and untenable. Their literary and artistic merit bears a direct relation to their doctrinal purpose; they are conceived and expressed in a spirit and manner of their own, profoundly attractive, no doubt, to a certain religious temperament, but not in any way attaining to a general, still less a world-wide, interest. To what precise extent the less inspired of her writings profited by her collaborator’s possession of the four qualities which she lacked, “patience, perseverance, discretion, and judgment,” it is impossible to decide; but one may feel sure that Mr. Maitland’s share in the work was an important though unobtrusive one.

* “The Perfect Way,” by Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland, with Preface by Samuel Hopgood Hart, fourth edition, 1909 (John M. Watkins).

** “Anna Kingsford; Her Life, Letters, Diary, and Work,” by her Collaborator, Edward Maitland. (George Redway, 1896.)

*** This subject has lately been brought into renewed prominence, owing to the Times having published, as an example of anti-vivisectionist bigotry, a very foolish letter, addressed to a member of prominent physiologists, by certain persons who had organised a crusade of prayer for the removal of vivisectors. Needless to say, no anti-vivisection society of the smallest importance or repute was responsible for this absurdity.

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, February 1896